All too often, stories about engaging with “the other side” of the abortion debate quickly turn ugly and presumptive of others. I hope this story will be different, and am willing to risk ridicule for sharing it because I hope it will encourage others to step out of their comfort zones.
This past weekend, I attended a medical conference where I presented my research on breastfeeding and open adoption and shared the vision and mission of The Guiding Star Project. It was wonderful to see conference presenters, exhibitors, and attendees representing all political, religious, age, and racial demographics. I attended two sessions that will highlight the wide variety of offerings. Those who know me won’t be surprised that I attended the first one: “FACTS: Fertility Awareness for Women’s Health.” The second session I chose, however, might surprise you: “Telling our Stories to Advance Abortion Access.” Especially as a provider of women’s healthcare services, I am not in favor of expanding abortion access. Abortion is an incredibly hopeless and violent act against women’s fertility, not to mention against the growing human inside her. It has deep moral and ethical implications for society. It is not the riskless and minor medical procedure that many try to portray it as. I attended this session to learn more about other’s reasons for supporting abortion and fully intended to sit quietly and listen to others’ stories. Due to unforeseen circumstances, that’s not what happened.
In this hour-long session, we learned the basic principles of crafting a compelling story to connect with others. The presenters highlighted the importance of vulnerability, authenticity, and emotional cues. They taught us how to “set the scene” and study our audience in order to create a feeling of “we.” At the end, we were asked to pair up and tell our “abortion stories.” My partner was an abortion provider from New York, and I knew telling a story about one of the women I know who regrets her abortion would make her feel attacked and put her on the defensive. Instead, I told a personal story about my teenage years and someone I knew very well who got pregnant unexpectedly. I explained how that young woman was ostracized, judged, and treated poorly by the people who should have loved and supported her; me included.
I shared my initial reactions of confusion and anger about her pregnancy, and then how they shifted as I watched her growing belly and people’s growing animosity towards her. I told this abortion provider about my anger with the people who claimed to be faith-filled and caring, but pressured her to quit over and over again: quit pregnancy, quit school, quit trying to breastfeed. Her baby was born early and when I first saw that tiny newborn, who could have easily and privately been aborted even at the age she was born, I knew with certainty that the mother’s struggle was worth it. I also knew it didn’t have to be so hard to carry an unplanned pregnancy to term. I concluded by saying that this is why I work in the women’s health field. I want to be the person encouraging women to do hard things because I believe in them and because I’ve witnessed firsthand how when women have support in pregnancy and beyond, they do amazing things.
My partner smiled and said she was happy my friend was able to have her baby. She wasn’t condescending and she didn’t run away from me. She then told me her story about how a patient of hers told her that Dr. George Tiller “saved her life” by performing a late term abortion on her as a teenager. The young mother had flown to the United States from the Caribbean for “a chance at life.” It was one of the most depressing stories I’ve ever heard, as the highlight was how she got her master’s degree and started a business years later. In her mind, her life was “saved” because as she did not think it possible to have done these things without the abortion. I didn’t say anything contradictory, but couldn’t help but think of the master’s degree I earned and the business I founded…and the six children I had while doing those things. I asked a few questions about adoption in the Caribbean and nodded politely when she told me it didn’t exist. I knew it wasn’t a battle worth fighting. And so we sat nicely together and I silently prayed a few feverish Hail Mary’s for her eyes to be opened and for her conversion.
When the session leader asked for 3 volunteers to share their stories with a larger group, I did not raise my hand. After 2 people were selected, in a turn that I truly did not see coming, my partner encouraged me to volunteer. I would have never predicted that I would be encouraged to tell “my abortion story” in an abortion advocacy session by an abortion provider! I couldn’t believe it as I watched my own hand go up; the leader gratefully chose me in her attempt to not choose the participant wildly waving her hand in the front row. My heart pounded as I came forward in a haze, certain I was about to be exposed as some sort of hateful “anti-choice fanatic.” While my hands shook, I did my best to follow the rubric we were taught. I was honest, vulnerable, authentic, and careful to not villainize anyone. The group sensed my nervousness and encouraged me with smiles and nods. I shared that I did not think abortion was her best option and that the child brought so much healing and hope to those around her, including me and my judgmental attitude about unplanned pregnancy. They nodded in agreement as I ended. I braced for the feedback portion…
But a beautiful thing happened: everyone gave positive feedback and even asked for more details. I saw some people with a look of inner-turmoil as they now suspected me to be from the “other side” of the abortion issue, but no one was rude or asked me to leave. Shockingly, none of their feedback had to do with highlighting her option for abortion. One group member even said she thought pro-choice gatherings needed more stories like this to remind people that the stigma for unplanned pregnancy is still very high in our culture.
Afterwards, a man told me he works in the pro-life movement and appreciated my ability to connect with others who I obviously disagreed with. He explained that his wife was the woman being obviously overlooked because the leaders knew they were pro-life activists. They have a daughter, who was with them, with Trisomy 18. Medical providers pushed them to abort her and neglect her needs, and this experience thrust them into activism to protect those with special needs against the violent discrimination of abortion and medical neglect. I saw this loving special needs mother talking with the session leaders after it ended and it was clear from their body language that they did not appreciate her points and did not want to engage with her at all. It starkly contrasted with how I was treated in my group. And all this got me really thinking….
I learned something valuable at that workshop, but it wasn’t how to advance access to abortion. It was how to advance access to people’s hearts.
When communicating, it’s true that facts can be important. For example, the FACTS workshop I attended presented an enormous amount of the highest quality research to demonstrate why Fertility Awareness Based Methods (FABMs) are an effective and healthy family planning option. In this circumstance, the presenter knew her audience was seeking data and statistics. Most medical providers are uninformed about FABMs and the FACTS workshop was designed to rectify that problem. In many other circumstances, however, firing off facts can be ineffective. Too often we try to *win* people to our worldview with facts that *should* logically win our argument, but facts don’t win hearts. Stories do.
As the advocates for authentic women’s health and wellness who believe abortion is never the right option, we must recognize that we have not only solid scientific support, but also great stories to share. We should try to lead with our stories. We must dare to share ourselves with people we suspect will disagree with us. Being vulnerable is difficult. For some of us, it may even feel like we’re emotionally manipulating others, but if our stories are true there is no manipulation, only the effective and compelling transfer of true information. We should not make the other side out to be terrible people, because quite honestly the women in that workshop are people with whom I’d like to be friends. They were good people; they just did not have all the facts and stories about abortion that I do. I am grateful to those who were in that abortion story workshop for being kind and gracious to me and for encouraging me to share my stories. I will do just that, I think. And I truly hope that I will get to meet more open-minded people who love good underdog stories and believe that ordinary people can do amazing things. When we challenge ourselves to step outside our comfort zones, we might find ourselves to be the ordinary people doing amazing things.
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